I Called him Morgan: A Jazz Guide to NYC
“[Morgan’s] murder turned Slugs’ into one of the defining postscripts to the turbulent ’60s. It remains a symbol of jazz at its most down-and-dirty a place where raw talent, life on the edge and the ecstasy of the music coalesced to create many sparks, then a fatal explosion." James Gavin, Jazz Times *
On a snowy night in 1972, celebrated Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, a raw young talent who had fast become one to watch in the world of Jazz, was shot to death by his spurned wife, Helen. The single shot that was to end Morgan’s life has since immortalised Slugs’ – the site of the crime; a jazz club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – in the hallowed halls of Jazz history. Traces of the famous venue have long since passed, however. Morgan’s death marked the demise of Slugs’, which shut its doors later that year amid rumours of mismanagement and a rapidly declining neighbourhood. In its place now stands an unassuming bakery in a gentrified part of town, with the heady history of the club living on only in legend.
A new documentary exploring the tumultuous life of Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen – I Called Him Morgan – will be screening daily at the Bertha Dochouse from the 28th July (you can buy tickets and watch the trailer here). With Slugs’ Jazz club now consigned to the history books, we’re celebrating the film’s release by bringing you a whistle-stop tour through a few of New York’s most famous Jazz haunts.
Location: 315 West 44th St, New York City
First established: December 15th, 1949
Named after the venue’s regular headliner Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Birdland has long been one of New York City’s most prestigious Jazz venues, as well as one of the coolest spots in town (it even gets a mention in Jack Kerouac’s beatnik bible, On the Road). The club’s notable performers read like a who’s who of the Jazz world, with everyone from Miles Davis to John Coltrane having left their mark here.
Whilst the original club has long since shut down, the spirit of Birdland lives on in the venue’s more recent reincarnations, and still boasts a stellar line-up of modern day Jazz stars.
Find out what’s on at birdlandjazz.com
Name: The Cotton Club
Location: 142 St, Harlem, New York City
Like Slugs’, The Cotton Club has long since shut its doors, but in its heyday it was one of the cornerstones of NYC’s Jazz Mecca. Its past is a chequered one, however. Owned by the infamous gangster Owen Madden, The Cotton Club began as a whites-only establishment, albeit one ironically fronted by a talented roster of black musicians, including the likes of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Paying customers could also partake in a bit of star spotting, with big names such as Judy Garland, George Gershwin, Mae West and Irving Berlin regularly making appearances.
Fun Fact: Francis Ford Coppola even directed a movie centred on the Harlem Jazz club during the 1930’s, aptly entitled The Cotton Club, starring the one and only Richard Gere.
Name: Village Vanguard
Location: 178 7th Avenue South, New York City
First established: February 22nd, 1935
Opened back in 1935 by proprietor Max Gordon, the Village Vanguard has stood the test of time, and the sounds of Jazz music can still be heard spilling out onto the streets of Greenwich Village over eighty years on.
Initially conceived as a club that champions a variety of musical genres and spoken word forms, including folk music and beat poetry, the club switched to an all-jazz format in 1957 and has long been a cornerstone of New York City’s jazz scene. Not only have many a jazz legend cut their teeth here – in one of his first big breaks, Thelonious Monk opened for the Vanguard back in 1948 – the club is also synonymous with a string of famous live recordings. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan have all recorded live albums in the Vanguard’s basement, many of which have gone on be regarded as masterpieces of the genre.
Find out what’s on at villagevaguard.com
Name: Ronnie Scott’s
Location: 47 Frith St, Soho, London
First established: 30th October 1959
Can’t afford those plane tickets to New York just yet? Don’t sweat it, as there’s plenty of famous Jazz joints tucked away amidst the teeming bustle of London. And when it comes to the London jazz scene, no list would be complete without the world-renowned Ronnie Scott’s – perhaps London’s most iconic Jazz club.
Throughout the years, Ronnie Scott’s has hosted some of the hottest names in the industry, including the likes of Chet Baker, Tubby Hayes, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. But it’s not just Jazz legends that have graced its doors. Even the mighty Prince has played here (once described as “the Duke Ellington of the eighties” by none other than Miles Davis), and Jimi Hendrix gave his last performance at Ronnie’s before his untimely death at the ripe age of 27.
Head to ronniescotts.co.uk to find out what’s on in the coming weeks…
*For more on Slugs’ and its legacy as NYC’s ultimate Jazz hotspot, check out James Gavin’s article for Jazz Times here.